There is no royal path to good writing; and such paths as exist . . . lead through . . . the jungles of the self, the world, and of craft—Jessamyn West
Unfortunately, some students who write in college do so by pursuing the path of least resistance, avoiding uncharted territory, and staying on commonly travelled paved roads that lead to predictable prose destinations. Such writers tend to discover less about themselves, the world, and the discipline of using words well. They run the risk of relegating their college years to the mere process of information gathering without achieving the kind of literacy that leads to critical consciousness. As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire explains, “To acquire literacy is more than to psychologically and mechanically dominate reading and writing techniques. It is to dominate these techniques in terms of consciousness; to understand what one reads and to write what one understands.”
How can a Christian become literate, as Freire defines it above, especially during the college years? After more than two decades of teaching college English courses, I am more committed than ever to the work of helping students answer this question. “To understand what one reads and to write what one understands” is crucial for people of faith. But to engender this sort of literacy among my students, and teach it effectively, I must first find out what their motives are for learning when they arrive in my classes. Understanding my students’ purposes and processes, insofar as reading and writing skills are concerned, is my ongoing primary task as a teacher.
So, with each new semester, I begin my courses—no matter what the subject—in much the same way: I give my students an in-class writing assignment. Often the assignment comes in the form of a ten-question inventory, in which students are asked a variety of questions related to the academic subject, the particular course, and their personal educational goals. From the onset, I want my students to identify, to consider, and to articulate their motives for learning. My hope is that they will be candid and specific. To make sure that happens, I call their attention to my directions at the top of the inventory:
Answer each of the following questions using substantive but clear sentences. If you are not sure how to answer a question, take a risk and try to provide a thoughtful response. Please be as honest and direct as possible.
Then I urge students to begin, to work steadily for the entire thirty minutes. Some jump into the writing eagerly, while others reread the questions and think, but all proceed with the pressing awareness of the ticking clock and the need to compose something to satisfy the expectations of the assignment. Such is the nature of college and university writing. I want my students to experience the reality of an academic composing situation in the very first moments of our time together, facing the challenge of addressing complex matters of motive and method.
With each question asked—whether it be “What are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?” or “What do you hope to gain from this course?”—students must deliberate and then choose to put certain thoughts on the page. This selection process is inherently challenging and personally instructive. As the English novelist E. M. Forster states, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” By putting their responses in ink, students can “see” what they might “say” in conversation if someone were to ask them their thoughts. In this light, writing demands good things from us. It helps us to explore and to clarify the reasons we claim for the choices we make, whether going to college or enrolling in a particular course. And it reveals the significance of our existence according to the conclusions we come to. Rightly done, thinking in ink shapes our sense of self. Consequently, writing can be a very meaningful form of learning for students, many of whom feel bombarded by information, having little opportunity to process or make sense of the things they are discovering.
Generally speaking, students want to be honest when they write, especially when the topic they are asked to write about pertains to how they live. If given the opportunity, they will express themselves authentically, providing remarkably candid feedback. For example, some students have revealed that they struggle with writer’s block and other writing related anxieties, and others have acknowledged that they hate to write because of the harsh comments written by a former teacher. Overall, most students appreciate the opportunity to have a cathartic moment or to concretize previously unexpressed reasons for why they do what they do in school. To my regular surprise, a steady number of my students admit that they have never written about their educational motives and behaviors, largely because they have never been asked to do so. If I am to teach well and my students are to acquire critical consciousness, then I need to know what my students think about why they learn, and I need them to know this, too. I can’t presume to know their reality. Being a teacher who is trained in rhetoric (the art of persuasion) and composition (the teaching of writing), I believe that effective instruction depends upon knowing my audience (my students) and their composing purposes and behaviors. Then I can adapt my teaching methods to address students where they live, move, and find their being.
The following observations about student writers are based upon their candid responses to my personal inventory assignments at the beginning of each semester and drawn from student comments in class and during one-to-one conferences. College writers have repeatedly communicated and confirmed these observations about their intentions, habits, and struggles (These generalizations must be qualified. They certainly do not apply to all students or all academic circumstances):
- Many students lack a compelling, internalized purpose for becoming better writers. The most common motivation involves getting a good grade on a paper (and in a course), which often limits their qualitative understanding of writing and its ability to foster personal development and meaningful growth;
- Many students do not possess a conceptual understanding that connects the skill of writing to an educational philosophy, a biblical foundation, or a theological perspective. Simply put, few college writers have a rhetoric—a persuasive rationale—that provides the basis for caring about words and their proper use;
- Many students confess that they wait until the last minute to complete writing assignments (even for major writing projects), allowing virtually no time for careful drafting, peer review, content evaluation, substantial revision, or precise editing;
- Many students have little awareness of the importance of sufficient time, as it relates to their own processes of writing. They overlook the necessity of incubation—the brain’s ability to process knowledge, consciously and unconsciously, over time;
- Many students are not fully aware of the objective expectations or standards by which a teacher evaluates their writing, so they often do what they instinctively think will work. Writing often becomes a matter of hit or miss, where the student guesses what the professor wants, instead of asking for clarification. If the student gets a good grade, then the teacher is perceived as “liking” the work, and if not, then the teacher is perceived as not “liking” it;
- Many students think that getting surface-level issues (usage) right is more important to pay attention to than getting deep-level issues (argument and structure) right. Such an emphasis promotes the idea that good writing is mainly a matter of correctness, and not persuasion;
- Many students see writing first and foremost as an artifact—a thing to turn in—rather than an action—a skill to develop from one assignment to the next. This product-over-process mentality discourages sustained awareness of writing and deliberate action toward progress;
- Many students fail to realize what professional writers know from experience: writing is hard work, the bulk of which occurs during the revising stage. In “The Maker’s Eye: Revising Your Own Manuscripts,” Donald Murray observes: “When students complete a first draft, they consider the job of writing done—and their teachers too often agree. When professional writers complete a first draft, they usually feel that they are at the start of the writing process. When a draft is completed, the job of writing can begin”;
- Many students are unable to identify and to assess their own habitual weaknesses and strengths accurately, much less read their own work with a critical eye. Few would be willing to take Samuel Johnson‘s advice: “Read over your compositions and, when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out”; and
- Many students are paralyzed by the thought of failure, and thus they take few risks to become better writers, risks that would require them to look closely at themselves—their convictions, their aspirations, and their personal habits. Students often confess that it is easier to make a calculated decision not to put a lot of effort into a paper so that, if it gets a low grade, they can always content themselves in knowing that they could have tried much harder, if they chose to do so.
These insights, sobering as they may be, prove as beneficial to my students as they are to me. That is why I routinely share them, welcoming further discussion. What I find especially curious is how willing students are to talk about the unspoken demands of school. Usually students find a sense of relief when I reveal to them that I know the rules of what has become, for so many, “the big game.” Sometimes this relief comes out in the form of nervous laughter. I try to get my students to see the pitfalls of playing the game, and I try to encourage them to choose another metaphor for school, one that would be more appropriate in order to redeem the many activities of college, including writing.
Truth be told, part of the problem results from teachers’ failing to give students a good reason to do the work they require. Richard Ohmann, author of the landmark study English in America: A Radical View of the Profession, presents a troubling assessment of this problem. In a college curriculum dominated by the requirements of textbooks, he explains, “Writing begins in the nowhere of the assignment, moves into the unbordered regions of the student’s accumulated experiences, settles on one region—the topic—and then looks around for feelings and beliefs to affix to that topic, with supporting details to be added afterward.” To put it more directly, the work of much college writing proves to be artificial, perfunctory, and irrelevant. The predicament, as Ohmann explains, stems from the fact that college writing, and even education itself, appears to be “an episode quite apart from the business of living.”
For those who acknowledge that Ohmann’s assessment rings true, how can they resist the tendency simply to go through the motions in college, especially when writing papers? Even more, how can students become counter-cultural, resisting the temptation to learn merely for a grade or a credit or some other external stimulus, instead pursuing the freedom of Gospel-centred learning for the love of God and the service of others? Can the college years (and the work in reading, writing, speaking, and listening) actually become an episode considered vital to the business of living?
I suggest five ways that a faith-filled student can transform college into something worth the time, money, and effort—to the glory of God. Each of these proposals, to greater or lesser degrees, depends upon the careful use of words.
Develop an educational rhetoric
One way to develop an invigorated purpose for learning and writing involves drawing upon the past. As Russ Reeves has rightly noted in this series, “We can inculcate historical consciousness by reminding ourselves to remember, to place ourselves in a broader context, a story that we shape even while it shapes us.” The history of liberal education in the West begins with rhetoric, the first of three foundational studies, including grammar and logic. Although the word “rhetoric” has an overwhelmingly pejorative connotation nowadays (usually in association with crooked politicians), in ancient times rhetoric served a noble end—to establish court systems and to promote justice. Rhetoric, the study of how to use words persuasively and ethically, was also considered to be a term to describe one’s educational rationale. Quintilian, a contemporary of the Apostle Paul and the first recorded public school teacher in Western culture, claims that without a telos—a guiding purpose for learning—education quickly becomes pointless. Quintilian’s friends, who revered him for his clear teaching and moral commitments, implored him to write an educational curriculum which they could use in order to teach themselves and their children. Quintilian’s purpose, first and foremost, was to shape students into ethical people who could make a positive contribution to Roman society, countering the rampant selfishness and violence of his time. Quintilian believed that every student (and teacher) should have a guiding rhetoric that informed one’s educational process, a rhetoric based upon humanizing values. In the centuries that followed, Christian educators were so impressed by Quintilian’s rhetoric that they modified it and used it for spiritual formation.
Today, having a clearly articulated educational purpose, and a process to realize it, has never been more necessary for a Christian student attending college. Writing down your educational goals—your rhetoric—as Quintilian did, makes especially good sense in an age when the connection between who we are and what we do appears to be increasingly irrelevant, from a secular standpoint. Also, there may be other reasons to learn in college, in addition to career training—reasons that prepare students for times beyond the forty-hour week, as well. Writing an educational rhetoric can provide a more complete understanding of one’s aims and help in the discernment process of vocation.
Build a Christian “word-view”
A truth often overlooked—worldviews depend upon words. Therefore, Christian learners in college would do well to think about the significance of language as it functions in the construction of a worldview. In The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen warns about the danger of word devaluation in our consumer culture, where advertising inundates us wherever we go. He illustrates his point by recounting an experience when he was driving through Los Angeles: “Wherever I looked there were words trying to take my eyes from the road. They said, ‘Use me, take me, buy me, drink me, smell me, touch me, kiss me, sleep with me.’ In such a world, who can maintain respect for words?” Nouwen’s question seems poignant, particularly for believers. As Bible-centered thinkers, we must affirm that words are a gift from God, given uniquely to human beings. Like any gift, words can be used for good or for evil, to build up or to tear down. We use words because He used words first, employing them in the creation of the universe, which we study in college. Indeed, we are made in the image of God—the great word user. Scripture even refers to Jesus as “The Word,” who, as Colossians tells us, is at the centre of all things—all academic disciplines.
Any student of the Bible—God’s Word to us—will quickly realize the premium our Maker puts on words and their proper use. Thoughtful Christians respect the power of words in the creative work of learning. They recognize the mystery and the wonder of language, and they strive to use words well—in speaking and in writing. A Christian word-view puts Christ, the living Word, at the center of all study. For the Christian student, using words well can become a spiritual exercise, not merely an academic exercise.
Find mentors to mimic
Mentoring functions as an increasingly popular kind of instruction on many campuses today, and for good reason. The practice of following—literally imitating—a worthy role model is ancient. Aristotle, unlike his famous teacher Plato, believed in the centrality of imitation in education. In his Poetics, which examines the art of poetic composition, he writes, “The instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.” Similarly, Christian discipleship operates on the principle of emulation: the disciple imitates the teacher and, in so doing, becomes transformed. Taking this principle and applying it to writing, one way to become influenced for the good, as a writer, depends upon finding worthy authors to read, analyze, and imitate. When reading a book, ask yourself these questions: Does the subject of this author animate my interests and my passions, and is it something that I value, relative to my educational rhetoric? How does the author use words? Can I intentionally allow the author’s writing style—the word choice, sentence patterns, and overall persuasive structure—to influence my own thinking and writing? (Note: imitation should never be confused with plagiarism, which actually takes another writer’s very words and sentences, passing them off as one’s own original work.)
Journal as you journey
For students who intend to make learning personal and sacred, journaling is essential. Serious journal writers carry a notebook and pen with them wherever they go, recording random thoughts, unusual observations, or personal feelings. Not to be confused with a diary, which recounts each day’s events, a journal affords much more freedom. As Clare Leslie and Charles Roth explain, “The recording can be done in a wide variety of ways, depending on the individual journalist’s interests. . . . Many people use the discipline of journal—keeping to help improve and sharpen writing skills. . . . Some learn to become more spare with words yet more succinct in meaning; others broaden their vocabulary and use more words precisely to create polished gems of writing.” As a freshman in college, and a recent convert to Christ, I embarked on a journal journey that led me through dozens of ruled books, thousands of pages, and numerous moments of deep and lasting realization.
College writing functions in two foundational ways: first, as a demonstration of acquired knowledge and understanding; and second, as a means toward the discovery of new ideas and emotions. Since typical college assignments tend to privilege the former, journal writing represents a great way to stimulate the latter. A journal can heighten the writer’s life experiences while they unfold, providing a log of memories for review and enjoyment later on in life. In this way, a journal allows the writer to mark personal growth over time, which can enrich one’s spiritual awareness and generate a gratitude for living.
Create a community with words
In To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, Parker Palmer offers his wisdom on why some students resist what education requires of them. He writes, “They are desperate for more community, not less, so when thinking is presented to them as a way of disconnecting themselves from each other and from the world, they want nothing of it.” The pressing need of college students, as Palmer rightly diagnoses, is genuine community. “We cannot learn deeply and well,” he argues, “until a community of learning is created.” To create a community of learning, students must share their words—their reality—with each other and build trust and understanding. As Palmer observes, “Nothing could possibly be known by the solitary self, since the self is inherently communal in nature.”
We need others to learn. And we need language to connect. Connecting requires us to go beyond the boundaries of a classroom or a course. It calls us to take risks by finding friends who cherish learning and living, friends who are willing to meet on a regular basis and to share what they value. Like any community, learning communities are not formed automatically or randomly; they require purpose and intention—they are created. Whether in the form of a reading group or a writing group—learning communities demand our time, energy, and patience. As a member of such a group, consisting of five Christian men who have met on a weekly basis for over twenty years, I can testify to the power of a learning community. Each week we take turns by sharing a piece of writing that we have written, discussing it over a meal. We do this not because we must (the most common motivation for college work) but because we want to, because it makes us better humans, more critically conscious of the world in which we live.
If college should teach us anything, it should show us how to be life-long learners who live in community with other learners, putting into practice the humanizing habits we cultivated as students. College should make us more literate so that we can live a better life.